A person making colleagues laugh, demonstrating the value of humor at work
5-second summary
  • Research shows that using humor can help encourage others to want interact with you in the future.
  • People who incorporate levity in presentations are more likely to be seen as competent and confident.
  • You don’t have to be naturally hilarious to use humor at work. Being a “humor appreciator” may also yield some benefits.
  • It’s important to stick to positive approaches to humor that don’t “punch down.”

Can you use humor as a shortcut for relationship building? Science says yes.

Case in point: 80 pairs of college students who didn’t know each other participated in an experiment. After talking for 30 minutes, they were asked if they wanted to continue interacting with the other person in the future.

Turns out, students with a sense of humor received far more “yes” responses than others. Humor, the findings showed, reduced the uncertainty and distance between people – even for strangers.

But OK, sure, that’s college. This is about work. Work is totally different. Work is serious! No laughing!

However, research shows that humor is good for the workplace, too. So loosen up, will ya?

The tangible benefits of humor at work

One good laugh — or better still, a workplace that encourages levity — builds cohesion.
– Brad Bitterly and Alison Wood Brooks, discussing their research on humor in Harvard Business Review

Humor is one of the most under-appreciated assets at work, according to research by behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker and corporate strategist Naomi Bagdonas. Together, they teach a course at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business about the surprising power of humor and leadership. In their popular TED Talk, they call humor the “secret weapon” for building bonds (and power, creativity, and resilience) and believe we should all have more of it.

Plus, they say, humor is a teachable skill. (More on this in a minute.)

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But it’s not about becoming a comedian. Instead, it’s about looking at the world in different ways, and about relating to one another more as human beings.

It turns out even one joke can make a difference – even if it’s not a great joke. In one experiment, presenters who used humor were rated as more confident and competent than those who gave joke-free talks, according to researchers Brad Bitterly and Alison Wood Brooks in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). Furthermore, the jokey presenters were more likely to be voted into leadership roles for future exercises.

That’s a pretty strong endorsement for giving a little humor a go.

But that’s not all. When leaders use humor, employees are more likely to go above and beyond the call of duty. “Humor … influences critical behaviors and attitudes that matter to leadership effectiveness, including employee job performance, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, citizenship behaviors, creativity, psychological safety in groups, and desire to interact again in the future,” according to Bitterly and Wood Brooks.

What’s the right type of humor to use in professional settings?

People can be funny in a variety of ways. Some people are great at incorporating humor into presentations and some are witty conversationalists. Some folks are Slack emoji savants, while others are good storytellers and clever emailers. And if you don’t feel that you’re particularly funny yourself, you can add levity to your work life just by enjoying and appreciating other people’s humor.

But it’s also true that humor can be risky. Jokes that cross the line don’t foster connection and can actually be detrimental. “Rather than thinking that the joke-teller is intelligent and competent, observers think, What an idiot or I can’t believe they just said that,” Bitterly and Wood Brooks point out.

So how do you strike the right tone when using humor at work?

Researchers from the University of Western Ontario found that humor can be divided into four styles: two positive and two negative.

Positive styles of humor

  • Affiliative humor. In this style, jokes aren’t made at the expense of others. The idea is to make everyone laugh or at least feel included. This type of humor is meant to have broad appeal and doesn’t center around a particular target.
  • Self-enhancing. Not to be confused with self-effacing humor, this style of humor is driven by a desire to enhance oneself by focusing on the positive. Someone might use this type of humor when looking at the brighter side of a difficult situation or sharing a story using revealing and self-deprecating details. This style functions as a good coping mechanism because it invites camaraderie, and it can also decrease depression and anxiety.

Negative styles of humor

  • Aggressive humor. This is easily identified as a style that puts down others, with a (mistaken) sense that it will reflect well on the joke-teller. Aggressive humor can create division and mistrust.
  • Self-defeating humor. This can be considered the opposite of “self-enhancing,” whereby joking about oneself, with the goal of appearing “good” to others, actually has the opposite effect: defeating oneself in the face of others. People who use self-defeating humor want to amuse others by causing pain to themselves, often by hiding anxiety with jokes.

It’s no surprise that the positive humor styles are more effective at building relationships. An experiment with couples shows how this can play out. 

In the experiment, researchers investigated how different styles of humor affected couples who were having intense conversations about their relationship. Each pair was asked to resolve a conflict while being videotaped. Afterward each partner was asked separately to complete a survey about how they felt, their stress levels, and their overall satisfaction. 

The people whose partners used a positive (affiliative) style of humor felt closer to their partners. They indicated a greater sense of satisfaction and felt less stress. But other participants, whose partners used a negative (aggressive) style during discussions, felt far less satisfaction. Moreover, their feeling of closeness diminished and their stress intensified.

These findings remain consistent when applied to work relationships. That is, positive humor enhances work cohesion and coping effectiveness, and negative humor decreases knowledge-sharing and trust.

How to use humor at work (without getting fired)

“A life devoid of humor is not only less joyful — it’s also less productive and less creative, for you and for those around you,” Bitterly and Wood Brooks point out. “Abundant benefits await those who view humor not as an ancillary organizational behavior but as a central path to status and flourishing at work.”

Here are some tips from Aaker and Bagdonas’ Ted Talk about using humor at work:

  • Don’t look for what’s funny, look for what’s true.
  • Don’t think to yourself, “Will this make me sound funny?” Instead ask, “How will this make other people feel?”
  • Don’t “punch down.” That is, don’t make fun of someone or tell a joke at the expense of someone else, especially if the person is of lower status in the organization.
  • Don’t make fun of someone else’s (or your own) vulnerabilities, and always “check your distance” – that is, you can make fun of your mother, but I can’t make fun of your mother.

Think before you joke. Use common sense. An inside joke can connect those on the “inside,” but be careful not to alienate someone on the “outside.” When using sarcasm (the most common type of workplace humor) context is king. Ask yourself if you’re being aggressive (negative) or affiliative (positive)? There’s a big difference. Self-deprecating humor can create bonds but don’t let it slip into self-defeating humor by disclosing something that creates awkwardness.

Opportunities for inserting humor into your work life are everywhere, but be tactful. Pay attention to the situation (“read the room,” as it were) and remember cultural dynamics vary. So be careful, and positive.

And be aware that humor isn’t appropriate in all situations. Accompanying constructive criticism (like feedback) with humor can soften a difficult message, but it can also obscure it. Don’t hide your true meaning with humor, particularly when being direct, honest, and tactful are what’s needed most.

As you go forward in your day, remember this: laugh more. Smile more. Have a little fun, OK? You don’t need to be serious all the time, even at work.

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